NEW YORK — Keith Appling sat facing his locker-room stall. The Michigan State senior guard was still in his uniform, a towel draped around his neck.
It was about 15 minutes after Appling and the Spartans had lost 60-54 yesterday to Connecticut in the East Regional final. Not only was Appling’s season over, but his college career as well.
And it ended without a Final Four appearance.
Since Tom Izzo took over as coach for the 1995-96 season, every four-year Spartans senior had made at least one trip to the Final Four. Appling and fellow senior Adreian Payne were not so fortunate.
“As the game got closer and closer to ending, it was on my mind a lot, every huddle,” Payne said. “For … Keith and I not to make it is disappointing.”
Such thoughts didn’t seem relevant early in the second half, as Michigan State (29-9) expanded a four-point halftime lead to nine at 32-23.
That’s when UConn senior Shabazz Napier took over.
He scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half. He made a three-pointer and four free throws in a 9-0 run that tied the score at 32, and the Huskies extended the spurt to 26-7 to lead 49-39 with less than seven minutes remaining in the game.
Napier made 9 of 9 free throws in the game, including three with 37.6 seconds left to make it 56-51, and the Huskies (30-8) became the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“(Napier’s) will to win — you could just see it,” said Gary Harris, who led Michigan State with 22 points. “He wasn’t going to let his team lose.”
Michigan State committed 16 turnovers.
“We were just too casual with the ball,” Appling said.
Added Izzo: “We got what we deserved today. I tried to tell these guys that, when you get to the tournament, you’ve got to bring it every second. And today Connecticut did.”
Payne had 13 points, but the 6-foot-10 center spent most of the game away from the basket, finishing 3 of 10 from three-point range.
“They definitely tried to force me out and to take jump shots,” he said. “They did a great job in the post of sending backside help, so it was kind of hard to get the ball down low.”
Then talk returned to the broken Final Four streak.
“You know, that streak doesn’t mean anything to me, as dumb as it sounds,” Izzo said. “Sometimes you got lucky. There were teams that we went to a Final Four with that weren’t as good as some teams we didn’t.
“Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes, you know, streaks are made to be broken.”